EDITORIAL: Dispensaries need blend of experience, reputation

Several months ago, medical marijuana was stuck in neutral in Southern Nevada. Today, it’s full speed ahead for the licensing and opening of dispensaries in unincorporated Clark County, Las Vegas and North Las Vegas. Local elected officials appear to have finally conquered whatever irrational fears they might have had about legal, taxed sales of an otherwise prohibited drug — and they appear to have listened to most of the concerns of the public and the industry in regulating the production of the narcotic.

However, as the Clark County Commission wraps up three days of dispensary applicant presentations, which will conclude today with the advancement of 18 from a field of about 80 for consideration by the state, elected officials must be able to look past the influence of politically connected candidates and instead judge applications by their expertise in lawfully getting marijuana to the sick.

The formation of this industry in Nevada, enabled last year by a state law that came more than a decade after voters authorized the use of prescription marijuana, has triggered a lobbying frenzy and big business for law firms. Local insiders clearly see dispensaries as can’t-miss cash cows that, perhaps as soon as 2017, could be allowed to sell marijuana for legal recreational use as well.

In picking winners from the crush of applications, commissioners and council members must strike a balance. They want to award licenses to groups that have principals with good reputations to prevent the possibility of dispensaries engaging in illegal drug sales. They want to avoid licensing outsiders who might have run afoul of the law in other states. And they want dispensaries to open in locations that make the drug accessible without triggering neighborhood outrage. But each application clearly needs someone who has experience running a dispensary under tight local and state regulation, and under the constant threat of intervention by the federal government, which still considers medical marijuana illegal.

All the political juice in the world won’t make a marijuana plant grow, and it won’t turn that plant into a product that relieves everything from chronic pain to extreme nausea to debilitating seizures. Whatever shameless political considerations play a part in the awarding of licenses, the goal of local governments — which clearly are hoping for a sales tax and licensing fee windfall — must be the delivery of a good product to the local market.

Las Vegas and North Las Vegas are catching up to Clark County after moving slowly through the spring. On Wednesday, North Las Vegas introduced its medical marijuana ordinance for council approval June 18, copying some language from its neighbors and moving toward a system under which applicants can be approved within weeks of state certification. Also on Wednesday, the Las Vegas City Council gave final approval to its medical marijuana licensing regulations.

In doing so, as reported by the Review-Journal’s Jane Ann Morrison, the council wisely dialed back a number of onerous restrictions that would have harmed patient access to the drug or potentially triggered a constitutional challenge to the ordinance. Strict advertising restrictions that would have prohibited handbilling — which is lawfully used by far less savory businesses — were removed. And a ban on all deliveries was scaled back to allow home deliveries while prohibiting hotel deliveries. Some patients who need a marijuana prescription filled are simply too sick to go to a dispensary. Kudos to the council for showing some common sense and compassion.

The next big question is whether licensed dispensaries will be able to sell enough product to generate significant sales tax receipts. With licensing and regulatory costs that will run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, legal medical marijuana won’t be cheap. Overpriced drugs will drive patients to street dealers and support criminal enterprises instead of taxpaying businesses. Local governments must be flexible enough to revisit their fees and regulations if the costs prove too high.

The rush of investors seeking to open one of the 40 Southern Nevada dispensaries allowed under state law bodes well. These enterprises will create a lot of jobs. Onward.